Brain food for toddlers

Published on Wednesday, 14 July 2021
Last updated on Monday, 12 July 2021

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A lot is said about the importance of a child’s first 1,000 days, and when it comes to early brain development, good nutrition at this time isn’t just food for thought – it’s essential.

Researchers explain that, ‘A great deal of the brain’s ultimate structure and capacity is shaped early in life before the age of three years,’ and good nutrition is a key factor that influences brain development at this crucial time.

It’s important that your toddler eats a healthy, balanced diet, and when it comes to specific foods, the researchers have identified 13 nutrients that are essential for early brain growth and function.

Today, we name these nutrients, and see which toddler-friendly foods contain these brain-boosters.

What nutrients are vital in your child’s first three years?

Although all nutrients are important for brain growth and function, the researchers have found that, ‘Certain ones have particularly significant effects during early development.’

Specifically, they say the following 13 nutrients are essential to optimise your child’s early brain development (in alphabetical order):

  • Carbohydrates
  • Choline
  • Copper
  • Iodine
  • Iron
  • Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • Protein
  • Selenium
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamins B6 and B12
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Zinc

These nutrients have been found to influence different brain functions.

Protein, iron, iodine and zinc appear to have an optimising effect on all of the critical neurologic processes happening in the brain (processes relating to anatomy, chemistry, physiology and metabolism). While the other nine nutrients impact the brain in individual ways.

For example, copper, choline and glucose (along with protein, iron, iodine and zinc) help with the brain’s physiology and metabolism by supporting the ‘electrical efficiency’ of little grey cells. And long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are a vital ‘macro-nutrient’ that helps with the development of the brain’s anatomy.

There’s evidence that nutrition can have short- and long-term effects on the brain, and as well as optimising brain growth and development, good nutrition may also help your child to use their brain to concentrate and behave in positive ways.

What should your toddler be eating?

For general good health, the government recommends that children aged two and over eat a wide variety of foods from the four food groups:

  • Vegetables and fruit
  • Breads and cereals
  • Milk and milk products
  • Lean meats, chicken, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds.

When it comes to servings, the government recommends that ages two to five eat, at least, the following foods each day:

  • 2 serves of fruit
  • 2 serves of vegetables
  • 4 serves of breads and cereals
  • 2 to 3 serves of milk and milk products, and
  • 1 serve of lean meats, chicken, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds (or at least 1 to 2 serves of legumes, nuts or seeds if your child is vegetarian).

There are examples of servings here, and if a serve is too large for your child’s little tummy, it can be divided into smaller portions and eaten through the day.

A varied, well-balanced diet will deliver the carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals that your toddler needs for their early brain development and overall health and growth.

And although this isn’t an exhaustive list, and specific foods might not be appropriate for your child, you’ll find the 13 brain-boosting nutrients in these toddler-friendly foods:

Protein is found in lean meats and seafood, eggs, milk, yoghurt (especially Greek yoghurt), cheese (especially cottage cheese), legumes and beans. Nuts and seeds are also protein-laden.

  • Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in oily fish (like salmon, tuna and mackeral) and walnuts.
  • Iron is easy to find in red meat, but foods like poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, dried fruit, oats, wholemeal pasta, iron-fortified bread and breakfast cereals, baked beans, spinach, broccoli, silverbeet and tofu also contain this nutrient.
  • Food Standards Australia and New Zealand explains that, ‘Iodine is in many foods, but much of the Australian and New Zealand food supply is now low in iodine.’ You can find it in sushi rolls (because seaweed contains iodine), canned salmon, bread (made with iodised salt), cheddar cheese, eggs and dairy (such as milk, flavoured yoghurt and ice-cream!).
  • Zinc is highly concentrated in oysters, but HealthDirect says it’s also plentiful in red meat and poultry, which will be more palatable for your toddler. Other good sources are tasty cheese, almonds, uncooked rolled oats, cornflakes, yoghurt and milk. 
  • Bread, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, oats and crispbread all contain lots of carbohydrates (which provide energy to the brain), and you’re encouraged to include wholegrain varieties (like rolled oats, brown rice and wholegrain bread) because they’re higher in fibre, vitamins and minerals.
  • Choline is found in caviar, liver and kidneys, but for a more toddler-friendly food, eggs are the best bet. Most of the choline is found in the egg yolk, and foods like salmon, shiitake mushrooms, beef, chicken, turkey, cauliflower and broccoli are also good sources of choline.
  • In New Zealand the main dietary sources of selenium are seafood, poultry and eggs, but foods like Brazil nuts (chopped up), beef, cottage cheese, brown rice and baked beans may also be selenium-rich.
  • Copper sounds like a strange thing for a child to eat, but the government says it’s widely distributed in seafood, nuts, seeds, wheat bran cereals and wholegrain products.
  • The NZ Nutrition Foundation (NZNF) says you’ll find Vitamin A in milk, cheese and butter. It’s also found in yellow-orange coloured fruit and veg (like carrots, capsicum and kumara) and dark green leafy vegetables (such as spinach and broccoli). 
  • We get Vitamin B6 from beef, fish, poultry, eggs, wholegrains and some vegetables. While Vitamin B12 is found in meat, milk, eggs and some yeast extracts.

The NZNF explains that Vitamin C is found in red capsicum, grapefruit, kiwifruit, strawberries, oranges, kumara, tomatoes and silverbeet.

While, Vitamin D is contained in oily fish (like canned tuna and salmon), eggs, lean meat and healthy exposure to sunlight. In New Zealand, there are also margarines, milks and yoghurts that are fortified with Vitamin D.

You’ll see a general theme here. Foods like eggs, seafood, lean meat, wholegrains and green veg contain lots of brain-boosting nutrients but remember that moderation is key.

Raising Children says, ‘Our bodies need only tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals – more isn’t necessarily better,’ so follow the government’s advice and serve up a wide variety of the four food groups in the quantities recommended for your child’s age.

If you’re unsure or worried about your little one’s diet, health or nutrient intake, then speak to a medical professional.

It’s also very important to remember that some of the above foods (like whole nuts and large seeds, pieces of hard fruit and vegies or squishy bits of meat) pose a choking risk for under threes.

Make sure you follow the Ministry of Health’s advice when choosing and preparing food for your under five.

How else can you support your young child’s early brain development?

As well as providing your toddler with good food, the researchers say you can also boost their early brain development by:

  • Reducing toxic stress and inflammation, and
  • Providing strong social support and secure attachment.

You can read more about toxic stress here, and your love and support is so important in babyhood, toddlerhood and beyond.

Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment explains how a caring, consistent, sensitive and responsive relationship with a care-giver can make a child feel secure and confident, and you can read about the theory here. 

Additional reference

Medical News Today

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